‘We’re Fine:’ Why the Pacers Aren't Panicking After Game 1 Loss

by Manny Randhawa | @MannyRsports

April 21, 2014

For 40 minutes and 36 seconds Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers beat the Hawks.

In that span, excluding a 7-minute, 24-second stretch to close the third quarter, the score was Indiana 85, Atlanta 81.

Descriptors like "stunning" and even "embarrassing" have been used to describe the 101-93 loss to a 38-44 team, whose aggressive and energetic play helped it snatch away the Pacers' home court advantage in the postseason’s opening round.

Those are some of the same words used to describe Indiana’s late season nightmare in which they lost 13 of 24 over the final six weeks, an inexplicable funk that many believe has bled into the postseason after what they witnessed Saturday.

Yes, the No. 1-seeded Pacers, winners of 56 games in the regular season and losers of just six home games, were down by as many as 20 points in the fourth quarter on their home floor.

But if you take a closer look at what transpired in the two hours and 25 minutes from Game 1’s opening tip to the final horn, the tale of the tape is not as woeful as some have made it out to be.

The Pacers' offense, which went missing in action for significant stretches in the team’s two-month free-fall after the All-Star break, shot 48 percent in the first half against Atlanta. By the end of the night, Indiana had connected on nine 3-point attempts out of 21. The Pacers outscored the Hawks 38-28 in the paint (despite their inability to contain Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap) and 16-14 in second-chance points.

Indiana outrebounded Atlanta 46-42. The Pacers held a team that shot 46 percent during the regular season to 43 percent Saturday. The Hawks attempted 30 3-pointers, using their spread/stretch offense against the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert-centered defense in an attempt to capitalize on his lack of speed with the openings this creates. But they made just 11 of those 30 (37 percent).

This game was not lost by a scuffling Pacers’ squad desperately searching for answers. It was a game that the Pacers who roared out to a 33-7 start to the regular season may very well have lost, too. That’s because X’s and O’s won this game for Atlanta, and lost it for Indiana, not a Pacers identity crisis.

So, getting back to the final 7:24 in the third quarter. What happened?

The score at that point was 60-58 Atlanta. The Hawks opened the second half on an 8-0 run, and the Pacers answered with an 8-2 run of their own. But at the 7:24 mark, Paul George had to come out of the game. He ended up going into the locker room to get some quick treatment for a left quad contusion.

All of a sudden, Atlanta's pick-and-roll game – central to its scheme against the Pacers – was given an inadvertent boost by having Evan Turner on the floor to switch onto Teague instead of the Pacers' best defensive player, George.

Having to exchange one of the best defensive wingmen in the game in George -- who achieved a defensive win share of 6.4 after leading the NBA in that category with a 6.3 last season -- with Turner, who has struggled to learn Indiana's defensive system after coming from Philadelphia midseason, was a huge disadvantage, one the Hawks knew they could exploit.

Suddenly, the man filling the gap when Teague penetrated into the lane past George Hill could be Turner instead of George. And one of the highlight-reel moments for Atlanta from Game 1 came a minute and a half after Turner checked in.

That was when Turner switched onto Teague off a pick, and Teague proceeded to victimize Turner with a vicious crossover, followed by a stare-down and made-3-pointer from the right wing.

Overall, Turner was solid off the bench, scoring nine points on 4-of-6 shooting and hauling in seven rebounds in just over 18 minutes on the floor. But George he is not, especially on the defensive end.

Less than a minute after George exited, so too, did David West, who picked up his fourth foul of the game when he was whistled for elbowing Paul Millsap on a post move to the rim.

To put things in perspective about how important West is to the Pacers' defense, the veteran finished the regular season with the same number of defensive win shares (5.0) as Roy Hibbert, who despite his late season struggles will get serious consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year award.

Luis Scola had to check in for West, again weakening the Pacers' defense in the gaps when Teague penetrates. Case in point: Teague all-to-easily stepped right between Hill and Scola on his way to another bucket in the paint with 5:05 to go in the third, extending the Hawks' lead to 11 at 69-58 and prompting Frank Vogel to take a timeout.

Nineteen seconds after play resumed, Teague marched down the court and took the ball to the rim again, again attacking Scola’s side of the floor. This time, Millsap basically boxed Scola out, and by the time Scola moved over to help C.J. Watson with Teague, another whistle blew and Teague was at the line for two more of his game-high 28 points.

All of this is not to mention what the Pacers lost on the offensive end in the 2:53 George was in the locker room. He had been 5-of-10 from the field for 17 points then, easily the most consistent scorer on the floor for Indiana. When he was taken out of the equation, the Pacers were outscored 11-0. Teague scored nine of those 11 points, and in less than three minutes, scored over a quarter of his 28 points on the evening.

Seven minutes and 24 seconds doomed the Pacers Saturday and put them in a 1-0 series hole. Was this an epic late-season collapse bleeding into the playoffs? No. This was basketball. X's and O's.

This was also an Atlanta team with a chip on its shoulder coming into a series it's supposed to lose and playing freely as a result, having won six of nine games in April (including wins over the Pacers, Nets, and Heat) with the Eastern Conference player of the week (Teague) to boot.

And, most of all, this was an Atlanta team that smelled blood midway through the third period when George and West left a weakened unit on the floor in their wake, and pounced.

"The game got away," West said after practice on Sunday afternoon. "I've gotta stay on the floor. It was a four-point game when I left the floor. It just got out of hand. Paul came to the back, he came off the floor. The game just got out of hand."

There is some credit due to the Hawks. We know that their style of offense, with a stretch-5 in Pero Antic, as well as potential 3-point threats at each position, would test the Pacers' stingy defense by pulling Hibbert out to defend closer to the perimeter. But Atlanta capitalized with Teague attacking aggressively when George and West were out of the picture. That stretch (sorry, no pun intended) of the game proved to be all the Hawks needed to steal the show.

Atlanta plays the Pacers better than your average eight-seed would play your average one-seed. An Atlanta victory in Game 1 is not all that surprising given the glaring matchup problems the Hawks give the Pacers. And that's why if there was bewilderment at the absence of alarms sounding and lamenting voices coming from the Indiana locker room late Saturday night, it should be clear that there was really no need to go there.

“They’re better than what their record has shown,” George said Sunday. “They’ve got a great coach who came from the San Antonio system, and they’re all about moving and just not having guys standing around. They’re constantly moving, it’s a tough offense to guard and they really just spread us out. We’re a team that packs the paint, and really just takes away everything from the strong side. We’ve just gotta grow now to getting to our weak side and really, just rotating … They got a tough cover; this is a tough matchup.”

Hibbert agreed, and wasn’t shocked when he and the rest of the Pacers left Bankers Life Fieldhouse down a game to this sub-.500 eighth seed.

“They’ve given us trouble in the past,” Hibbert said. “So we knew that coming in here there was a possibility that they could steal one here.”

The Pacers split the regular season series against Atlanta, and outside of the thrashing Indiana endured on Apr. 6, no game was decided by more than 10 points.

Hill said he doesn’t think Saturday's loss is the result of the Pacers continuing to fight through the ills that plagued them down the stretch in the regular season, but simply a game plan that didn't work.

"We thought we had a good game plan and it didn't work out the way we thought it would work out," he said. "That happens in the playoffs. The only thing you can do is to continue to follow the game plan, and when it's time to watch film and work on things and try to do things different and make your adjustments, that's what we have to do ... I don't think (it's the late season problems). I just think that we had a game plan that we thought would work, and it didn't work. So you've gotta adjust."

"We played good," George said. "But when you play against anybody, it's tough to have a 30-16 quarter. You give a team that advantage on your floor, comfort starts to set in and they just start to play at ease, and I thought that's what happened. We're usually the ones that come out in the third quarter and make an impact, and I thought that's what they did."

George noted that a big chunk of the responsibility for containing Teague going forward in this series rests with the defenders off the ball that have to rotate into gaps when he penetrates, which was the exact area of Indiana’s defense that was left so compromised when George and West left the floor in the third on Saturday.

"It's not on the person that's guarding him," George said. "It's the person that's behind him. We've gotta do a better job of being in our gaps, being in the help spot, because he's a load. He's got that elite speed and it's tough for one guy to be able to contain him."

Don’t be confused about what a Game 1 loss to the Hawks signifies about the Pacers. And don’t forget some of the positives -- yes, there were some positives -- that came out of that game, because they very well could impact the series going forward.

Containing Pero Antic

Antic, thought by many to be an X-factor in this series, was 3-of-7 from the field for eight points in Game 1. In Atlanta’s Apr. 6 rout of the Pacers, the rookie center had a season-high 18 points and mercilessly burned Indiana from the perimeter. He was held in check Saturday.

George Assertive on Offense

After getting treatment for his quad contusion, George was just 1-of-8 from the field, but that was when the Pacers faced a late double-digit deficit and their star had to try to create something offensively with a 1-0 series deficit looming.

But prior to that, he was 5-of-10 shooting, creating offense off the dribble and hitting two of four 3-point attempts. He also finished with 10 rebounds, giving him a double-double, along with five assists.

George’s aggressiveness on offense is important for a team that can only hope for some semblance of a league-average offensive attack in these playoffs if they are to advance as deep as they did last year.

George Hill reappears on offense

George Hill turned in his best offensive performance in nearly a month Saturday night, scoring 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting. It was his best offensive showing since Mar. 24 at Chicago, when he scored 17 on 6-of-10 from the field.

Hill’s recent timidity with the basketball was concerning coming into the postseason, but if Saturday’s performance is a sign of things to come, Hill could again become an efficient cog in Indiana’s offensive plans.

Evan Turner’s shot was falling

Turner, while showing glimpses of the offensive contribution the Pacers hoped they’d get when he was acquired in a Feb. 20 trade with Philadelphia, shot 42 percent in March and April. But on Saturday, he was 4-of-6 for nine points and grabbed seven rebounds in 18-plus minutes.

Luis Scola had a poor shooting night, unable to connect on a single field goal attempt (0-for-6), but came into the postseason shooting well (57 percent this month). If he, C.J. Watson (who scored 20 off the bench in the regular season home finale against the Thunder on Apr. 13), and Turner have their play reflect their recent improvement simultaneously, the bench production could be a huge lift for Indiana’s offense.

Collapse? No. Matchup issues? Yes.

The Pacers that lost to the Hawks on Saturday are not a group in crisis. If George and West had to come off the floor around the same point in the third quarter against Atlanta’s spread offense in November or December, they could very well have lost the same game then.

This is a team that has to fix X’s and O’s before Tuesday, not some type of broken chemistry. They have to even a series, not reclaim a lost identity.

It wasn’t embarrassing. It was basketball.

“We’re fine,” George said. “We’ll get everything under control for Game 2.”

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